Monday, March 21, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Jane Austen famously described her novels -- in a description subsequently often quoted to denigrate her work and that of other female writers, either overtly or through a backhanded head-pat -- as "The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour." Mary Robinette Kowal's first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is deeply in that Austenian tradition, and will certainly garner a few head-pats of its own, from the clueless and the sensation-addicted. But writing a novel this quiet, this domestic and constrained and pure, in the early 21st century -- not to mention doing it in a genre as entirely built on external action and what teenage boys call "adventure" as fantasy -- is surely one of the most radical things that any writer could hope to do, a perfectly shaped and wielded knitting needle thrust, with all the best taste and tact possible, right into the Achilles heel of the genre.

Milk and Honey is, in nearly all ways, a novel Jane Austen could have written. The ending does pull back somewhat more than Austen typically did, irising out to give a quick vision of the future after this story ends. And the world depicted in Milk and Honey is more fantastical than the one Austen knew -- the manipulation of glamour, folds of reality that can create illusions fooling many senses, has been added to the catalog of feminine, decorative virtues, and are even attempted by a few men engaged professionally in the work. Glamour is thus like cooking: if a man does it, it's impressive and entertaining. When a woman does it -- and she likely does it every day, if she does it at all -- it's only what's expected of her, and sufficient to show that she has the required virtues.

Milk and Honey is an alternate-world version of Sense and Sensibilty: sensible older sister Jane Ellsworth is the plain one, highly gifted in the manipulation of glamour and deeply intelligent, but outshined in beauty by her more frivolous decade-younger sister Melody. And, of course, their father has no sons, leaving his estate -- which is comfortable but not palatial -- entailed over to a distant relative on his death. Jane is our heroine and center, as she must be, and Milk and Honey follows her journey from the verge of spinster-dom to a much happier life. The novel takes place in that small, constrained, very Austenian world of rare balls, daily visits (or chances for visits) and walks across the countryside, with the same few people coming across each other again and again over the course of a few months. There's the mildly tedious local grande dame, her favored and dashing nephew, the local lord who may become someone's suitor and his younger, protected sister, who may become someone's friend. And then there's the great glamourist from London, down in the country as a tutor and to assemble a magnificent room-sized environment for the grande dame.

This is a novel in the Jane Austen manner, so Jane Ellsworth will be smart and cutting and thoughtful and lovable along the way, until her perfect life finally comes into view. Kowal allows herself somewhat more action in the last fifth of the novel than Austen would have -- though that action is all entirely period-appropriate. Shades of Milk and Honey is unabashedly painted with a tiny brush on two inches of ivory -- a style that has never been much in fashion, in any literary precincts, and is the diametric opposite of the usual expectations for a fantasy novel. So that it was done at all is impressive, and that it was done this well is a cause for joy -- since Milk and Honey is a lovely, quiet idyll of a world that never was, and one of the vanishingly rare fantasy novels that is entirely about the happiness of a small clutch of people, needing nothing more.

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